Dave Chappelle: Equanimity & The Bird Revelation REVIEW

Dave Chappelle
Source: Netflix

I think I was in the sixth grade when I first saw The Chappelle Show.

By that time, the show was over. Chappelle himself was gone and back again from his infamous flight to Africa, and the series cult status was rapidly growing, along with its DVD sales.

Still, it came to me at the right time. I was probably around 11 or 12 years old, and almost completely ignorant of racial tension or black culture in America (I grew up in New Brunswick, Canada). At first, I just found him funny. Pretty soon, though, I began reading up on some of the history in order to ‘get’ the jokes. After that, I found him really funny. Through the show, I was gaining insight into an experience that I couldn’t really know. I think that helped me grow as a person.

This is probably why I find it so interesting to watch the four Netflix specials he released this past year. Because now, we’re watching him grow up.

Just like back in November, Netflix has dropped two performances simultaneously. Unlike those two specials back in the fall, which felt like two solid specials that happened to have been released a the same time, these two hours are vastly different from one another.

Equanimity is an expensively produced, big-venue comedy performance. The Bird Revelation, on the other hand, is a cheaply shot bar set. We see the same performer, same general time period, but they are entirely different experiences, which I think makes for a much more effective pairing.

The short version of this review is, yes, they’re good. Yes, they’re better than last time. I don’t think there is much point in convincing you that Dave Chappelle is funny. He is, you’ll just have to believe me.

Personally, I find it much more interesting to discuss how our notion of “funny” is changing, and how, with these specials, Chappelle is changing with it.

So, let’s get straight what everybody wants to talk about when we talk Chappelle specials. Let’s talk controversy.

Allow me to get this out of the way right off the bat–the trans jokes in his last two specials were more offensive than they were funny. Most people agree that it was a major problem for those sets.

The problem, as I (white/straight/cis guy) see it, is that whenever a comic attempts to guide us through some truly dicey material, we need to trust that it is coming from an empathetic place.

This is why, for example, it’ll be so difficult to re-watch a Louis CK set. When someone’s entire act relies walking the line between what’s right and wrong in terms of social behavior, we have the expectation that that person knows the difference. If they are discovered to have been, oh, say, masturbating in front of co-workers, their moral credibility, and consequently their act, sort of falls apart.

Bringing this back to Chappelle, when he makes jokes about a group of people who’ve historically been ridiculed, hated and marginalized, we as an audience need to know that it’s isn’t coming from a position of hate. I think in his last two specials, this is where Chappelle failed. Taken on face value, those jokes just seemed mean. Unfortunately, in those two specials Dave didn’t give us much more than face value.

Thankfully, in Equanimity, Chappelle faces the controversy head on, dealing with it in a much better way than I could have anticipated. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t back down from his previous statements, which might turn people off. This is understandable.

However, I think what Chappelle did successfully this time around was inject his opinions with a bit more humanity. For instance, while discussing the controversy, he recounts receiving a letter from a disappointed transgendered fan. He talks about how it made him feel bad to have made someone else feel bad. Clearly, the response mattered to him. He listened. He didn’t apologize, but he listened.

I think that this approach is a huge improvement over the last set. We’re not dealing with a shock-comic like Doug Stanhope, or a sociopath like TJ Miller. We’re listening to a person who has some measure of respect for humanity. Chappelle can even be wrong about these things, and that’s okay. He’s just struggling to make sense of it, and personally, I find that struggle pretty funny.

Then, we come to the #MeToo stuff in The Bird Revelation. Here, it’s more than a couple questionable jokes, it’s the entire theme of the special. It could be said that here the subject is approach less artfully here, and with considerably less skill. Is this special more offensive than Equanimity? Yeah, probably, but his approach is just as interesting.

Equanimity, with its more prepared material, feels like a snapshot of who Dave Chappelle was in 2017. Conversely, in Bird Revelation, his act is more fluid. We’re watching him move, change and and consider these things in real time. He still plays the audience like a pro–pulling back when he knows he is going to far, dropping a joke when he’s getting too dry, but he’s much closer to the material. He’s trying different things, even reconsidering jokes and contradicting himself. You really get a sense of his mind works here.

People will disagree endlessly on whether or not his jokes or perspective on these issues is problematic or not. As for me, I don’t think they kill the specials. In fact, I think that it’s incredibly interesting to watch a talented, smart person learn to adapt and grow in real time. I think there is value in this. Society is changing too fast for many people, and some are struggling to find their place in it. It’s fascinating to see a comic in 2018 who does not stand firmly in Camp A or Camp B, but is instead making the journey between them.

Anyway, to sum up. They’re good. Of course they’re good. Despite all the public discourse, I don’t think Chappelle’s talent was ever in question. We know the dude can put together a solid special, and these two might be his best yet. Last time Chappelle might have thought he was returning the same world that embraced him in the late nineties and early noughties. Despite the success of those first two specials, it quickly became obvious that this wasn’t the case. Now, in 2018 we get two hours  that reveal that he is, in fact, very aware of how those jokes were perceived, and is making a serious effort to reconcile with it. Not bend to the public’s will, mind you, but to open himself up and adapt.

Early into Equanimity, he struts onstage and claims that he thinks he’s “too goddamn good” at stand-up to. As convincing as he may be, I don’t think he really believes this. I think he is trying harder ever before. For the first time, I see the strain, and I think that is significant. “It’s not exciting,” he claims. I couldn’t disagree more.

Some of the coverage you find on Cultured Vultures contains affiliate links, which provide us with small commissions based on purchases made from visiting our site. We cover gaming news, movie reviews, wrestling and much more.